It was the sale of the summer. You could get a litre of milk for 22p, a pack of 10 bacon rashers for 42p and a whole chicken for just £1.19.
The news spread fast and by 1pm on Thursday a massive queue of men, women and children was snaking its way around the Ulster Farmers’ Union headquarters in north Belfast, everyone eager to snap up a bargain.
Within an hour the 800 food items up for grabs were all gone and UFU members were handing out vouchers so those at the end of the queue could come back the next day to collect their produce.
The crowd of more than 500 keen bargain hunters who converged on the innovative Ulster Farmers’ Union protest yesterday underlined the significance of these knock-down prices — this is what farmers are paid for toiling all year against a backdrop of rocketing feed, fuel and fertiliser costs.
UFU members sold off crates of milk, bags of potatoes, carrots and Bramley apples and packs of bacon, lamb and beef topside for bargain basement prices outside their Antrim Road base to highlight the poor farm gate prices they are getting from processors and supermarkets.
All profits were donated to the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children.
The farmers insisted they are not calling for the prices on supermarket shelves to go up — they just want a fairer cut of the huge profit margins that have been made by the time the food reaches shoppers’ baskets.
UFU president Harry Sinclair said: “The farm produce stall at UFU headquarters will allow us to illustrate to the general public how little farmers receive for their produce.
“In a difficult year like this, it is clear that the food chain doesn’t work, with farmers’ problems being ignored by retailers and processors. With costs rising and prices falling, the implications for the future of farm businesses are obvious.”
Manning the stalls outside the headquarters was Hamilton Loney, chairman of the Northern Ireland Fruit Growers Association.
He said growers are struggling, earning 44p a kilo at best for Bramley apples and sometimes as little as 15p — yet the cost of producing them is 20p a kilo.
Meanwhile supermarkets are selling the apples at £1.50 a kilo.
“We need a fair price for everybody — we have all the work to do and a lot of the expense, but the supermarkets are getting a profit of 200% more than what we get.”
Beef farmers are angry because they are getting just over £3 a kilo while their counterparts in England are earning £3.45, according to UFU beef and lamb chairman Ray Elkin.
“The prices are plummeting and the farmers are perturbed because across the water the same animals are going for £100 a head more,” he said.
“With the bad weather, many farmers have already used a significant proportion of their winter feed and it’s difficult to see how they can all survive.”
UFU dairy chairman Andrew Addison was selling off cartons of fresh milk for 22p a litre, a fraction of the on-average 79p it sells for in the supermarket. It costs between 26p and 28p a litre to produce — and that means dairy farmers are running at a loss.
UFU pork and bacon chairman Ivor Ferguson said pig farmers are in dire straits, earning £1.40 a kilo for pork when supermarkets sell it for £6-7 a kilo.
“We need at least £1.60 to cover our costs. We all know the massive profits that major retailers make within a year and they could accommodate us within the margins.”